Michigan sophomore forward Milan Gajic heard the jokes and all the criticism last year. A prolific scorer in the British Columbia Hockey League during high school, Gajic suffered major growing pains his freshman season while adjusting to college life and college hockey. Gajic had an easier time finding a 7-Eleven on campus than the back of the net, scoring just three goals in the first half of last season.
“We used to joke that Milan used to play in a league with no goalies,” said Michigan captain Jed Ortmeyer.
It was not a joking matter for Gajic. He admitted that with every shot that hit the post or missed just wide by an inch, he forced the issue even more. He became too aggressive and let his lack of scoring effect other parts of his game.
After all, what’s a goal-scorer who can’t score goals? Gajic ended up sitting out as a “healthy” scratch during the first half of the season more than he lit the lamp.
“Whether it was intensity or understanding how to become a better defensive player, he had a lot to learn,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said.
Gajic regrouped near Christmas time, netting six points in the matter of a few weekends. He was a huge part of Michigan making it out of the West Regional, providing an offensive spark with a beautiful wrap-around goal against St. Cloud.
So is the real Gajic back?
“That’s yet to be seen,” Berenson said. “I can’t tell you he doesn’t have the talent, but he’s got to prove it out on the ice every night.”
And if Gajic thought he had a lot of pressure last year, this time around it’s multiplied tenfold. With Mike Cammalleri leaving early for the pros, and leading scorer John Shouneyia out for up to eight weeks with a fractured wrist, Gajic will find himself with a ton of ice time on the first line and powerplay.
What Gajic does with this perfect opportunity will be a big factor in where the Wolverines stand at midseason – and in April.
“I knew the minute Cammalleri and (Mike) Komisarek left, a lot of the burden would fall on me and the other guys in my class,” Gajic said. “It’s our turn.”
Actually, it’s Gajic’s turn. Other sophomores, like Eric Nystrom, Dwight Helminen and Jason Ryznar, may add their fair share of complementary goals. And highly-touted freshman Jeff Tambellini may show some flashes of brilliance in Yost Ice Arena. But Berenson brought in Gajic to score, score and score again.
Adding to the pressure, Michigan will be breaking in 17-year old freshman goaltender Al Montoya and there will be a premium place on the Wolverines scoring plenty of goals – especially early on.
Picking up the slack is not impossible. Shouneyia proved himself equal to the challenge last year when Cammalleri suffered from mono for nearly two months, racking up the points and setting up teammates the way Berenson always thought he could.
And Gajic has a leg up on Shouneyia. He actually loves to shoot the puck. While Shouneyia seems to be a pass-first, pass-second type center, Gajic has the instincts, the hands, and the vision of a top-notch scorer.
He just has to prove it.
Of course Berenson gave him the unlucky distinction of donning No. 9. Yes, that’s the same number the legendary coach wore at Michigan, as well as Michigan’s lone Hobey Baker winner Brendan Morrison – Michigan hockey’s prodigal son.
Whether the number should be retired is a whole other issue. But it doesn’t seem like Berenson gives that jersey to just anyone. Either you have a lot of hype (Mark Kosick), or are the real deal (Morrison).
For Michigan to have a strong chance of defending its championships and making it to a third straight Frozen Four, Gajic has to prove he’s the latter.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org